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Nature in Miniature:
A Beginnerís Guide to Bonsai

by Arthur Kier

When purchasing a bonsai, saikei, or bonkei, consider several important points. First and most importantly is that these are living trees needing the care and attention that goes with maintaining any special plant. Also some species of trees require more care and attention than others so keep one's gardening skill in mind. For beginners, consider starting with more easily grown species such as ginkgo, bougainvillaea, cypress, ficus, and juniper.

Most bonsai trees grow best outdoors, including in patios and balconies. A few trees grow successfully indoors, but even these need bright light several hours every day. Pomegranates, cotoneasters, figs, and ficus are some species that will do well indoors. If the room is rather dark the plant can still thrive with the daily use of a bright spotlight or a grow light. During dry weather periods misting regularly or using a humidity tray keeps the air around the leaves moist.

Be sure to check the health of a bonsai before purchasing. The leaves or needles and the soil should not be overly dry. Remember to look for any insects or scale that could indicate an unhealthy tree.

Also get a "feel" for the bonsai. By gazing at the tree, what feelings does it invoke in you? Is it a majestic giant on a mountain? Or perhaps it is a ravishing beauty on a hillside or a peaceful grove of quiet trees in a meadow. The feelings and emotions that one gets from a bonsai, saikei, or bonkei are every bit as important as the technical details of the tree.

When bringing the bonsai home, be sure to give it some time to become acclimated to the new environment. Also always grow a bonsai according to the needs of the species of tree. For example, a ficus will thrive in partial shade while a pine needs full sun to stay at its best. Whatever the species, partially shade a new bonsai for the first month while gradually exposing the tree to full light. Also leave the bonsai in the same container until the plant adjusts to its new home, even if it is an ugly training pot. This is the time to start a bonsai diary making note of the date the plant was taken home and a basic watering and fertilizing schedule. Later you will need this information when you prune or repot.

After choosing a tree, pick a pot that is best suited for the style and feeling of the tree. There are four basic styles of bonsai containers. The most common type is the Japanese style pot which comes in many shapes and sizes. They are simple in design and of generally solid or subdued colors. Like a plain frame around a picture, these pots allow the trees to be the point of focus in viewing. On the other hand, Chinese style pots tend to be decorated with designs. These pots complement a more modest tree and will give good results without so much attention given to styling the tree. Sometimes a bonsai can be planted directly on a rock slab or in small holes in a free standing rock. Using a rock as the planter reinforces the feeling of nature. At times an artist will customize a container to complement the special features of a particular tree. When considering the choices of a container, pick a size that is in proportion to the tree so the overall balance is maintained.

Also ensure that the soil used for your bonsai drains well and meets the special needs of the particular species of tree. A good basic mix would be five parts of sand, two parts of organic humus, and one part of perlite. The perlite allows air to reach the roots.

A good location is another in maintaining the health of your bonsai. In addition to the light considerations already mentioned, protect your plant from too much sun and wind, especially in the summer or on Santa Ana days. Never place bonsai pots directly on the ground since insects will nest under the pot and the pot can become discolored from the soil and water. Also place the plant out of traffic areas from both people and pets. Using a pedestal or shelf will keep the plant off the ground while offering greater visibility to visitors. Rotate the tree weekly so that all sides receive sunlight, avoiding uneven growth on any side.

For special occasions, trees grown outdoors can be displayed in the house for a couple of days.. For a formal display accompany the bonsai with an accent plant or a suikei, a viewing stone that suggests the appearance of mountains, waterfalls, or even animals. Letting one's imagination go while viewing a suiseki is the key to greatest appreciation.

Since a bonsai is growing in a small container, pay special attention to the feeding and watering of your tree. As a general rule, use a weak solution of a general purpose fertilizer twice a month during the growing season. This will provide food for maintaining the health of the tree without causing too much growth, which can ruin the shape of the bonsai. Water often enough so the soil remains slightly damp to the touch. When watering be sure to rinse the leaves or needles to keep the tree clean. With proper care a bonsai, saikei, bonkei will provide many years of viewing pleasure, letting one escape back to nature without going far.

For southern California bonsai enthusiasts, be sure to visit the San Diego Bonsai Club, which meets on the second Sunday of each month at Casa del Prado, Room 101, Balboa Park at 11 a.m, or the San Pu Kai Club which meets the second Tuesday of the month at the Vista Recreation Center. Many nurseries are beginning to offer some small bonsai style trees. For a selection of Japanese style pots and large bonsai trees in the San Diego area, try the following nurseries:

  • Iwaisako Bonsai Center, 2345 Darwin Dr., Oceanside, (619) 724-3818
  • Sunshine Gardens, 662 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas, (619) 436-3244
  • Walter Andersen's, 3642 Enterprise Street, San Diego, (619) 224-8271

Happy growing!

Interested in more? Read our previous article The Art of Bonsai

Bonsai books available through our online bookstore.

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